Video: Bureaucratic Islam and the Romance Industry in Southeast Asia

October 24, 2019
Alicia Izharuddin, 2019-20 WSRP Research Associate

Alicia Izharuddin (University of Malaya), Visiting Senior Lecturer on Women’s Studies and Islam, gives a lecture entitled “‘Bureaucratic Islam and the Romance Industry in Southeast Asia.”



But today it's my pleasure to introduce today's speaker, Alicia Izharuddin. She comes to us from the University of Malaya, from Jalan Universiti. She-- where she is a senior lecturer in the gender studies program. She did her doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, better known as SOAS at the University of London in the UK.

And her first book, which came out in 2017, is entitled, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema. She also has a recent publication in what's probably the most prestigious journal in women's studies, Signs, the journal of women in culture and society entitled, "Free Hair--" I love that title for obvious reasons-- "Unveiling and the Reconstruction of Self." So I commend that to all of you that came out in Issue 44.

She also has many other publications on equally interesting topics, but I don't want to take any further time away from her lecture-- Bureaucratic Islam and the Romance Industry in Southeast Asia. Alicia.


Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, Ann, for the really kind introduction. I'm very pleased to be here to deliver what I would like to call my US debut. [LAUGHS] I'm also so thrilled to be in the presence of new colleagues and new friends in this room. So for those who have--

Can everybody hear--

I'm trying, I'm trying, but I'm kind of moving around a little bit from where I'm set, so I'll try to speak out a little bit more. So for many who might have gleaned from the title, might be a bit intrigued by the slightly incongruous elements in the title, "Bureaucratic Islam and the Romance Industry," and how they might relate to each other.

My lecture aims at showing how they might relate to each other, but a lot more in demonstrating how they thrive in parallel with each other. And hopefully at some point, my researches show how they might feed off each other, too. So the romance industry I'm focusing on occurs in Malaysia, which is a modern Muslim majority, multicultural society with a small majority of Muslims, around 60%. But despite their minority size-- I would say modest majority, they do have cultural and political hegemony in the country.

So I would also like to introduce to you what I would call bureaucratic Islam, and what I would also refer to as the romance industry. I'm also interested in this lecture, in the concept of the counterpublic as a critique of Jürgen Habermas's concept of the bourgeois public sphere, his assumptions of its singularity, critique of its actors that occupy the bourgeois public sphere, the elevation of rationality over a fact, assumptions behind the tenuous binary between private and public.

But before that, I just want to provide a little bit more context, like the background against which my lecture and overall project wishes to interrogate and also challenge. So timing would have it that the-- last week, the Islamic feminist organization Sisters in Islam recently published a major survey on the public and private rights of Muslim women in Malaysia, and the findings were actually quite dire.

700 women were interviewed for this survey, and they were asked about their thoughts on polygamy, what rights or lack thereof they had in an Islamic marriage, and their thoughts on domestic violence. So these things have become stock concerns within the bigger question of the women question in Islam.

So the Sisters in Islam found that 70% of women agree that polygamy is permissible in Islam, but only 32% of that 70% would accept it within their own marriage. So it's OK for polygamy to-- it's acceptable, but they wouldn't want it for themselves in their own marriage. 66% felt they had the right to initiate a divorce if their husband married another woman. 96% of women felt they have a responsibility to obey their husbands.

So personally I find it quite hard to believe that a majority of women can live like this without serious harm done to their mental health, but much more pressingly, I find it hard to believe that these women do not have an outlet to channel their struggles in distress. So today's lecture is kind of like an educated conjecture and perhaps a corrective to what women might do under these kind of circumstances in lives that seem constrained by this narrative of gender-based injustice and passivity.

So bureaucratic Islam is the architecture set up to govern and to make Sharia law much more efficient, rationalized, and expand it in the lives of Muslims. So the rise of this bureaucratic approach to advance Islamic law and Sharia compliance into personal, corporate, and increasingly public lives of Muslims shows how religion has adapted itself to modern society. And it has also fused with secularity, putting to rest debates about this power struggle between religion and secularism in the public sphere.

So under this kind of bureaucratized approaches to Islamic governance, we find this kind of fusion or marriage between secularism and Islam in that we have a marriage of secular structures and styles of management, rationality, and logics, but you have religious or Islamic symbolism and embodiment. So in other words, you find the structure is secular, but the substance is Islamic.

And so a more robust definition of what bureaucratic Islam or bureaucratization of Islam means-- and I take this from Muznah Mohamad work-- it is when Islamic values, beliefs, and goals are subjected to a rationalized system accompanied by the professionalization of its legal agents, which are usually judges, officials in religious authority, moral police, and they're supported by a bureaucratic administration which could only pursue Islamic reform through secularization.

And also I want to add that religious authorities in Malaysia, they are given huge amounts of money to run the show, and over and above all the other kind of administrative agencies in the country. So there are real gender consequences for the rise of bureaucratic Islam, and I would try to make an educated guess that the romance industry sort of is symptomatic of the effect, the fallout, and maybe the legacy of this rise of bureaucratic Islam.

Because bureaucratic Islam became responsible for the rolling back of Muslim women's rights under Sharia law from the mid-1980s and 1990s. So the kind of rolling back involved the abolition of laws that made unilateral divorce easier. So it meant that in the '80s, it was more difficult for men to unilaterally divorce their wives. But from the 1990s, it was a lot easier, so you could do it anywhere. You could just say, I divorce you three times and it would be effective. But in the early 1980s, It. Was a lot more difficult in the sense that you had to go to court to sort of say, I would like to divorce my wife.

And there were a lot more restrictions placed on men who want to marry another wife concurrently in the early '80s. But from the mid-1980s and 1990s, it was a lot easier for men to take another wife. So the legal rollback placed increased obligation for women to be on their best and good behavior so that they could have access to their rights in divorce, child custody, and maintenance from their ex-husbands.

So of particular interest to me is how bureaucratic Islam manages marital relations. So one of the ways that bureaucratic Islam shows its power is through the mandatory marriage premarital courses that Muslim couples have to go through in order to be officially married. And bureaucratic Islam sort of claims to be rational, and but it is actually really quite inflexible, and it has claims to desexualization, but the reality is it's a domain of male masculine effect. It's a space where men could sort of openly express it, that I could always take another wife, and they always do it in a very humorous, jokey way.

They make jokes about polygamy, marital rape is real and it goes unpunished, and there are these kind of open proclamations of sexual braggadocio that men sort of do. And even though women are thought to be a lot more passionate, in that women are a lot more emotional, they are expected to remain silent, obedient, patient in the face of male sexual privilege and entitlement.

So under these kinds of conditions of what I would refer to as emotional asymmetry, in the sense that men could sort of express these sort of sexual prowess, but women have to sort of stay silent, even though the-- it's a paradox is that women are thought to be a lot more emotional traditionally. Women do find ways. These are the outlets that I'm interested in. So they form these kinds of relations, practices, and intimacies in what I would argue to be an emotional counterpublic of the romance industry.

So in other words, the modes of governance under this increasingly bureaucratized form of Islam have had unintended effects, practices and relations. And of those unintended effects and relations is the romance industry and this emotional counterpublic of care, which I will talk about towards the end of the lecture.

So I also want to say that the romance industry is kind of an intervention into a kind of public, and I also want to disrupt this tenuous binary between emotions and rationality by saying that under bureaucratized religious conditions, women turn to romantic fiction because it makes sense. It makes sense for women to turn to romantic fiction as a source of security and comfort.

So by going to this phrase "making sense," I'm appealing to both the rational commonsensical meaning of the phrase, but also to the word "sense" in the sense that it is associated with feeling, emotions, and intuition. So the Malaya romance industry can be sort of encapsulated-- because I want to introduce you to this romance industry, what it really means, but I could do that by showing you a case study of a woman who participated in my fieldwork who I will call Mouni.

So Mouni-- through Mouni, my case study, we can appreciate the industry's drives, practices, relations, and perhaps its future. So from this point of my lecture, bureaucratic Islam will just remain in the background. It's like the contextual hum, and it won't really sort of bubble up again. So we're just going to focus mostly on the romance industry from now on.

So back in 2018, Mouni attended a focus group discussion I organized. And it was a focus group discussion specifically for women who were either married, divorced, but there were single mothers, and above the age of 30. It sounds a bit arbitrary, but I found out that if you're a young reader of romance fiction from the age of 18 up to your mid-20s, the kind of books that you read were quite different. So if you were older, married, the kind of books you look for tend to be quite different.

And there is this trend that the stories tend to be increasingly sad as you get older. [LAUGHS] So that's one thing I've discovered. So I was interested into this kind of like demographic.

So Mouni was very expressive, she was very articulate. She wears a hijab and she's educated, she has a university degree. She's divorced with two young children, and she was single at the time of the focus group discussion. She accepted my invitation to participate because she was very keen to share the pivotal role that romance fiction played in her life.

So after her divorce, she turned to romantic fiction in a very intense way. But there was a particular theme that she looked out for, and that was forced marriage and the theme of a woman triumphing sort of over the struggles that followed after divorce. So she would frequently reread fiction about female characters who have reinvented themselves after divorce to regain a sense of strength for herself, and the Malay term for it [SPEAKING MALAY].

When I asked her, like why would you read romantic fiction about forced marriage? She revealed that she, too, was a victim of forced marriage when she was younger. So shortly after she graduated from university, her mother had arranged her to marry a young man without her knowledge, but the young man in question was a friend that she had developed a close friendship with. She was initially offended, but she felt quite coerced to acquiesce because her father had passed away and she felt duty-bound as a filial daughter to keep her mother happy.

The marriage was rocky in the beginning, although love did eventually develop between them, but it ended after the birth of their second child. That was when he started seeing other women, but she initially forgave him for that. But her marriage to this man finally ended after her husband attempted to sexually attack her younger sister.

It took her three years to finalize her divorce. Her ex-husband has remarried very quickly after the divorce, but Mouni was single throughout the whole time. At this point in her life, three years after her divorce, she completely threw herself into reading romantic fiction, and she displayed signs of reading badly during this period. So she was a single mom. She was working, but she would read night, on weekdays, up to two of the three novels a month. On weekends, reading with take over her entire day. So engrossed was she in her reading that she forgets to eat, and she only takes a break to use the toilet.

So she is currently writing her own novel at the time, and it was-- its title is, [SPEAKING MALAY], which translates to Another Husband for Polygamous Mama. So in other words, this is a story about a woman who takes up another husband, and she becomes polygamous rather than men becoming polygamous.

So she claims that she's kind of writing a little bit from experience, but she insists that the novel has a slightly humorous side to it, which is a bit of an interesting sort of counternarrative to men making jokes about polygamy. Here's a women sort of making it humorous for a woman to be polygamous.

But the title and the subject matter is subversive and is in conflict with orthodox interpretations of Islam. Only men are allowed to marry more than one woman at a time and up to four. By upending the terms of polygamy in favor of women, Mouni takes revenge on the culture of silence and obedience that women like herself must endure when Malay men make a lot of jokes about their ability to take on multiple wives.

So readers like Mouni rely on her manic fiction to recover from forced marriage and divorce. Reading and writing weave into her intertextual self-making, which involves comparing, emulating, and contrasting herself with characters in romantic fiction, while at the same time recognizing that this is actually still fantasy-- it's fiction, it's not sort of-- it's not real.

And this is what she says. She says here, we cannot fight fate, but we try nonetheless to be like the characters in the novels. Like me, I tried to be like the protagonist in Finding Aziza, which is her favorite novel about a woman who goes through a divorce, comes back fighting, and reinvent herself.

I want to attempt the ways she regains her strength, how in the end she attains what she wants. We find strength through novels. For me, novels have an impact for me to move on in life. The cure comes from the novel. Novels are like medicine, the best medicine is reading. So this thing where she says the best medicine is reading is really interesting for me, because that's where I think about reading as care, as caring, as care work.

So reading provides relief for women who have struggled with the aftermath of betrayal and divorce, but reading for Mouni constitute a passionate attachment to narratives that lead to accusations of female access. So if you are an avid reader of romantic fiction, you might be accused of feeling too much, having too much emotions, reading too many books, and you read big books that are too big. I mean, some of these books are over 1,000 pages long. And then they are distracting her away from her domestic responsibilities.

So the cultural work of reading romance fiction and its injunction to readers to be good and self-abnegating Muslim women can be productively juxtaposed with the sacred place of reading in Islam. So the Arabic word for reading is [SPEAKING ARABIC] and has been translated to mean, to learn, to recite, proclaim, and understand. Reading is the centerpiece in [SPEAKING ARABIC] in the Quran and marks a touchstone in the history of Islam.

So this is really interesting. I just want sort of like juxtapose sort of the Islamic element and making reading not such a sort of terrible thing even though you read a lot of it. So I want to go to like how romantic fiction is a site for a community and micro-celebrity. So I talked previously about Mouni, and she's definitely not unique.

And she comes-- she is a product of state-sponsored development and modernization and increased access for women-- women's education. So they are all beneficiaries of a state project to rapidly modernize the Malay population that began in the 1970s in which women gain increased access to higher education in numbers that ended up exceeding men in university in higher education.

Industrialization opened up a lot of opportunities for wage employment, urban migration, and social mobility for women. On the role of educated, Malay Muslim became reinvented in the service of capitalist accumulation, especially in the 1980s. And the twin demands of reproductive domesticity and wage employment.

So at this period of time from the 1980s onwards, women became caught in between demands of development, but at the same time, they mustn't forget their primary roles as wives and mothers. So romantic fiction is really interesting for me because it's overdetermined. Just like the subject of women in Islam, it's kind of overdetermined by hegemonic assumptions that's usually couched in this discourse of passivity, agency, resistance.

But actually, there is a really more interesting way to talk about romance fiction by looking beyond the text and looking at the community of readers, writers, and publishers. So the crime genre has an unexpected overlap with romantic fiction in that crime fiction also has a lot of female readers. So why would the crime genre, known for its depiction of brutality and sexual violence against women, would have so many female fans?

So it's because both genres-- the romance and crime genre-- are sort of a kind of safe space for women to take back control of the narrative where justice and happy endings not found in life could be assured by the end of the story. It could be enjoyed and enjoyed again and again through multiple reading.

So the popularity of romantic fiction in Malaysia can be explained as a form of resistance and rejection of Western style romance also. So Western style romance in the eyes of readers is that it's usually quite stereotyped as overtly permissive in its depiction of premarital intimacy. But despite its oppositional orientation to Western style romance, there is still, again, overlaps between like the Malay romance and the Western romance in terms of how it's viewed by the general public. People still consider it very trashy, trivial, not serious, and it has this idealistic preoccupation with love and often an ambivalent construction of female sexuality.

But those who are working within the genre, they see things very differently. They see romantic fiction as a source of guidance, moral guidance, and they're books of wisdom and advice. So there are numerous sort of cross-cultural examples. So in Nigeria, romantic fiction, they offer moral advice, moral guidance to readers on overcoming crisis in their love and family life.

So a historical view of women writers show like a negative bias anyway. So anything that's dominated by women tend to have sort of this negative bias. So the romantic fiction that I'm looking at in Malaysia is dominated by female authors, but love stories can be traced right to the beginning of the modern fiction-- modern novel in Malaya.

So the first one was written and published in 1925. It's called The Story of Faridah Hanum, and it was written by a male writer, Shaykh al-Hadi. The novel was inspired by early 20th century Muslim reformist movement. It's actually set in Egypt rather than in Malaya at the time. And it's a story about the importance of women's education and emancipation from traditional customs, but it wasn't the most progressive story.

Similarly, women novelists only made a later appearance in the 1960s, and then Malay literature went into decline. And it was revived again in the form of the popular romantic fiction in the early 2000s, and the novel that sort of triggered this revival was a novel called Waves of Longing published in 2002.

And this novel was increasing-- it was very problematic. It was a romanticization of sexual violence and forced marriage. And because of the popularity of this particular novel, it sort of led to novels of similar stories, similar themes of forced marriage, sexual violence, marital rape. And this is a very sort of confounding period in sort of Malay popular literature, but it indicates a union between this marketing strategy. So a lot of people interested in this will produce more books like this. But there is also this lurid fascination with this contradiction of Malay womanhood.

So contemporary Malaya fiction in Malaysia is conceptualized as an industry. So rather than focus as individual pleasure, romance industry sort of positions female desire-- and I use female desire because a lot of these novels sort of are about men, the kind of men that they like, that they don't find in real life. So the titles themselves also are about men. So these are mostly heterosexual romance fiction.

So the romance industry is also just transactional complex of social and commercial relations in which the role of reader, author, and publisher overlap. Because authors and publishers usually start out as readers themselves, and as readers, they try with varying degrees of success to become writers of romantic fiction.

So women, as I was saying, they dominate the romantic genre, and they overturn a long history of male domination in Malay language literary and fiction writing. Popular romance novels can sell up to 100,000 copies for a title. So in addition to storytellers, romance authors perform as successful moral gatekeepers. Through the novels, they'll tell you how to be a good woman.

And because readers-- writers usually start out as readers, there is that kind of democratic quality of romantic fiction. And an example would be this image here. So the lady in the middle in the orange hijab, her name is Chitay, and she's a bestselling romance fiction author. She's based in Kuantan, which is a big city in the middle of the peninsula. And she is a middle-aged housewife with very minimal work experience. She hails from a working class family, and her highest educational attainment is a school leaver certificate at 18.

After she left school, she went to work as a supermarket cashier for three months, and then she married and she started writing her novels. And she became a huge financial success, although modest if we compare like how much money people make or not so much here. So from-- so she's written about four novels, and she's sort of gained around 5,000 US dollars from 10% of sales in a span of four years. So her most popular novels about female sacrifice and forced marriage she says are not based on personal experience, but they're kind of like construct it from like pure fantasy.

So other popular novels are middle-class women who mined from their own personal experience and expertise as lawyers and university lecturers, and they craft these quite realistic and educational love stories much praised by their readers. So this kind of literary practice is shown to be methods of public expression and self-modernity for women who are poorer, work-- from poorer working class backgrounds. And we see this trend in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia we have domestic workers who also turn to online public forums to write stories on online forums, and they also write novels, but their lives, their aspirations, and also activism.

How much time have I got left? I think I've-- I've probably spoken about half an hour.

Yeah. About twenty minutes.

OK. Super. So I want to go now to the infrastructure that makes our romance industry possible, and this is what I call the infrastructure of an emotional counterpublic. So for the past three years, there's a place that I go to every April for two weeks, and it's Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair.

So this image doesn't quite capture sort of the sights and sound of this book fair, but this is the biggest literary event of the year. And women, young and old, they come dragging their suitcases with wheels waiting to fill them up with romance novels by the end of the day. The venue is the Putra World Trade Center, which is this enormous building. It's a place of cultural and political prestige. It's located right next to the headquarters of the Malay Nationalist Party, so the place itself is quite prestigious.

The book fair has become a pilgrimage site for readers, or "pilgrims of romance," as I call them, from all around the country to come here every year where they will meet and pay their respects to their favorite authors. They come bearing gifts, they take photos, they hug, they kiss, embrace their authors, and they also listen to the authors talk in person offering life advice.

So this is the primary site for romance fiction, but there are also other material spaces for the romance industry. So the other one would be-- oh. OK. It's not happening. And-- because the next slide is really quite important.

That's when it always--


It's going to give you see it--

Oh here we are. OK, super. OK. So all throughout my field research, I--

I'm just testing it. They may be large files, that's why it's taking awhile.

OK. Yeah they are. They're just mostly images. So all throughout the duration of my field research, I maintained contact with the publisher and owners of this publishing company called Casi Aires. They've been in business for the last 10 years, and they also run this romance cafe seen here on the left called Readers Heaven & Coffee.

On their team are women. It was co-founded by two sisters, and the sisters are partners and their friends are their sales promoters, reviewers, and editors. All of the women in Casi Aires, they are middle-aged Malay Muslim women. They wear the hijab-- they're university-educated, they're very articulate, very literate, and they're also avid readers of romance fiction.

They run the company and meet daily here in Readers Heaven & Coffee, and it's located in Bandar Baru Bangi, which is this pioneering Islamic township on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia with an overwhelmingly Muslim middle class population. The cafe is one of the few bookshops and publishers in this quiet Islamic shopping district frequented by female patrons who are there mostly to buy luxury hijabs and prayer garments.

So Readers Heaven & Coffee sells only romance fiction. Nearly all of the books are in the Malay language. It is a space for its owners, the co-founder, and for readers to come and talk about love, in a way, and learn about sort of what it means to sort of indulge themselves in ideas and narratives and practices of love. So that is the sort of catchphrase for the publisher. It's all about love. Casi means love.

So I think this is quite an important moment for me to talk about like cross-cultural interpretations of love. I mean, because it isn't really what you think it is. And so-- and it's not right to sort of interpret what we think is like a universal emotion, and then sort of impose our understanding of what love is into another place.

So there's increasing scholarship on problematizing meanings of love. And the desire for love and companionate marriage is often seen as this kind of universal phenomenon, but actually, it's seen as this kind of globalized ideal that people aspire to modernity talk about like wanting to marry based on their own choices.

But I also want to focus on a more culturally specific idea of love in the Malay society. So the etymological origin for the word love in Malay is [SPEAKING MALAY]. And in it comes from the Sanskrit word, [SPEAKING MALAY], to mean thought or to mean to care. Etymologically it suggests a link between reflecting on something and the acts of love. And from its semantic roots, love is meant to be something edifying, and it's meant to be intellectually uplifting, even though the titles of the novels that I haven't had time to share with you, they don't come across as very edifying.

But nonetheless, like [SPEAKING MALAY] or love is good to think with. And also the word care from its original Sanskrit meaning, it's also something very important because that's where I'm going to go to at the end on counterpublics of care.

So the role of thought and reflection in romantic love as opposed to the physical and material relations of love is sort of discussed in a lot of length in Wazir Jahan Karim's groundbreaking research and discourse of emotions in traditional Malay society. So traditionally, articulations of intimate romantic emotions become intensified during courtship, and it's usually mediated through poetry and song. Because a naked expression of love and desire is typically frowned upon. Courting couples use verse as a way of communicating their love for each other.

However, in romantic fiction, articulations of love and desire is a lot less poetic. Readers before like an everyday register of love and everyday registers of narrative and a dialogue rather than this flowery and poetic approach. So it goes on to show that this combination of realism, transparency, and non-elitism is appealing to highly literate readers who are actually very keen to identify with texts, with the characters, with the context, and find some kind of direct resonance in the text.

So which brings me to the penultimate section of my talk-- romance fiction as an ethic of care. So romance industry and the writing of romance fiction has proven itself to be quite somewhat non-hierarchical. There is an emphasis on interrelations and community-building. And so these are sort of-- it contributes to the genre's success and the centrality to the readers' lives. And as a counterpublic, it's addressed to them as Muslims, as students, as workers, mothers, and wives.

So through the romance fiction's ability to provide relief, comfort, security, solidarity, and also hope for readers, it enables possibilities for decentering and subverting male protectionism as a source of care in Islam. This is to say that there are alternatives in which women can also provide care for other women.

So perhaps this view a romantic fiction as a moral enterprise and its effective motivations' emphasis on relations, an implicit critique of women's status in society coheres really well with Carol Gilligan's concept of the ethic of care. So I take a quote, which I kind of really like, from-- oh-- there we go.

So from a justice perspective, she sort of compares the concept of justice and care. So from a justice perspective, the self as moral agent stands as a figure against a ground of social relationships, judging the conflicting claims of self and others against the standards of equality. From a care perspective, the relationship becomes the figure defining self and others within the context of relationships. I think there's a bit of a typo there. The self as a moral agent perceives and responds to the perception of need.

So Carol Gilligan's ethic of care arises from a critique of justice that places centrality on the autonomous individual as an active agent. The ethic of care here is exemplified in romance fiction by the concerned care for others, provide care, prevent harm, moral relationships with others. So the authors do care about their readers a lot.

So this ethic of care is mediated through and transcends the romantic text through community-building, interpersonal relations with writers, opportunities for readers to become writers themselves, and the material infrastructure that make emotional counterpublics possible. So in conclusion, it's a very big file, so it takes a little while for it to transition to the next thing. OK. OK, there we are.

So romance fiction could not have succeeded without high levels of female literacy and high levels of education and access to education. High rates of female literacy in Malaysia contribute in direct and indirect ways to this formation of this emotional counterpublic. Reading and writing have become tools for the empowerment of women. And reading in particular is being-- meaning a being a sacred injunction creates conditions for romantic fiction to produce and foster social literary relations across socioeconomic class backgrounds.

So to conclude this, I also want to say that the process of selling and buying emotions-- because this is what romance industry does-- is the transfer of effective resources from the booksellers who act as arbiters of romantic taste. So the booksellers will profile readers and say, I think I know what you like, and then they will recommend things, and they would recommend things to who they see as an emotionally deprived party.

Women who feel unfulfilled, who seek solutions to their personal problems and have a strong desire for emotional and romantic thrill, romantic text activates emotions in the reader. The thicker the book, the more emotional enjoyment the reader will feel. It also facilitates emotional self-sufficiency in women who feel deprived in their marriage. For these reasons, romantic fiction contributes to the creation of the counterpublic of care.

So if the aim of religious bureaucracies is a production of emotional asymmetry of male sexual dominance and female silent obedience within the institution of most Muslim marriage, and the production of a hegemonic public in which these values preponderate, then its counterweight is the romance industry which harnesses the cultural script of women being overly emotional or the female emotional excessiveness for its own ends and through productive means-- through community-building, storytelling, and the no less ambition project of reworking womanhood itself through the counterpublic of care. Thank you.


Do you need like a water or--

I'm-- I'm OK, I'm good.

You are?


OK. And you're ready for questions?

Yes I am.

All right. Wow. That was such an elegant and provocative presentation, I can't wait to hear what questions people have. I think-- well, we are filming this, so we will ask you to speak your question into the microphone which I can run around to you. And also, if you could introduce yourself, that would be great. So any questions? Yes?

Ursula Cargill. My question has to do with your care analysis. I wonder if the romance-- the fiction industry, whether the-- if you could rate or prioritize three factors-- the economic enterprise that comes from this industry, or the conditioning or indoctrination into like this whole system of forced marriage, or an avenue for autonomy for the women in terms of going out or even writing, if you were to prioritize those three, which one would you put as the most significant and to the least? Thank you.

So the third factor would be--

Avenue for autonomy.

Avenue for autonomy. So the second is-- I'm sorry.

Conditioning or indoctrination.

Hmm. It's really hard to tell which goes-- which is prioritized. I wouldn't say the first one, economic sort of success as a writer comes into the picture at all, because a lot of readers don't make a lot of money from writing novels. The writers don't make a lot of money from writing, and publishers don't normally make a lot of money either. And when they do, it's quite modest, but part of the appeal would be this sense of micro-celebrity that they gain amongst the community of fans.

So the indoctrination, that's a really strong word to use, but perhaps that is the thing that I would prioritize in a sense, in that these women are taught that this is what they should be as women through this discussion I had in the early part of my lecture on the role of religious bureaucracy and creating what is the idea of-- ideal wife and mother.

And they are very inflexible ideas. And I didn't mention in the lecture, but in the forthcoming book written by Maznah Mohamad on Islamic bureaucracies and marriage, the marital courses for women do not talk about love at all. So the importance of love between husband and wife is not mentioned at all. And that's in the Malaysian situation, because she does a comparative study of premarital marriage courses in Singapore. And the Singaporean marriage courses for Muslim couples do talk about the concept of eternal love.

So there is something about this sort of cultural indoctrination in Malaysia that leads to women feeling hungry for love, it seems, that this idea of love seems to be very important but missing in sort of like official narratives and sort of the right ways of being a woman, like you were feeling deprived of love. So I think that would be the thing that I would prioritize.

Thank you.

Mm-hmm. Wow. I'm just going to start here and we're going to kind of go around. Thank you.

Thank you, Alicia. I'm Nurul Huda, and I'm a Visiting Fellow at the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World at Harvard Law School. Thank you, Alicia, for the great talk, I really enjoyed it. I have two related questions. One is if we could return to your informant Mouni, who's an avid reader but also an aspiring writer who fantasizes about polyandry-- like having two or more male partners or husbands, I was very fascinated by this because in my study of Malay polygamy, it was very unusual to encounter women who actually found polyandry very appealing. In fact, they would refer to divorce one and go to the next man rather than have multiple men at the same time.


So I wonder how prevalent fantasies of polyandry are among the women that you studied, which brings me to my second question-- if these romance novels serve as like a way to cultivate fantasies about love, romance, marriage, what are the limits of it? I mean, do these novels talk about sex, for example, which are a very taboo subject in Malay society? Or do they explore different kinds of love, like maybe homosexual love? So I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thank you.

Polyandry is probably unthinkable for a lot of women anywhere, not necessarily in the context, we're talking about today. So only Mouni spoke about polyandry and wanting to write about this in her novel. And I don't see any other examples. However, I would say though there are a lot of novels that do focus about the kind of men that they would like.

And having spoken to publishers and writers, they talk about men who are idealized-- idealized men in the fiction would be men who play a more active role in the household, doing more domestic responsibilities and showing a lot more affection physically and through words. These are kind of idealized images of men. But the interesting thing is that I think it's one man at a time, but there are multiple competing male rivals for the romantic attention for these women that are explored in these fiction, but the end is sort of monogamous.

But I think there is an increasing trend-- if I want to go slightly-- slightly tangential direction would be to say that the kind of men that they are interested in also come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. So it's not just sort of a very wealthy man. They're also men who are farmers, shepherds, roadside food vendors, street food vendors who are also idolized as potential romantic interests for these women.

Going to your second question, which is on the-- so the site which is Casi Aires that I go back to for the research, they have very clear guidelines on how to write romantic fiction. There's absolutely no depiction of premarital sexuality. So for this reason, a lot of novels start with marriage first, then the romance comes in, rather than sort of this Western idea of romance where it's love and romance and then it ends with marriage. So the reason why you start with marriage is that it provides a sort of permissible condition for female intimacy-- male-female relations to happen under halal permissible conditions.

But the thing is, when we do talk about sexuality, that is quite prevalent in romantic fiction. It's often sort of quite violent as well. So there's a lot of sexual violence in these stories. And when I talk to readers who like reading these kinds of stories, it's-- for them, they say that-- they always say, it's never happened to me. I've never been a victim of forced marriage or a victim of rape, but they use the text as a way of learning what if they do become victims of rape? Then the novels provide a way of sort of coming to terms with these kind of things.

But also, publishers tend to have a page where did they call out aspiring writers. If you're interested in publishing with us, these are the rules. So no sex, no sort of politics, no controversial-- not even homosexuality is allowed. Oh, there are more?

Let me--

OK. Good afternoon, Professor Izharuddin, it's a pleasure to have heard your work, and it's really invigorated a lot of my thought. My name is Nicole Correri. I'm a second year PhD student at BU working with Professor Kecia Ali as my advisor. So I work on gender. One of-- I have many questions. So I'm so glad to have the opportunity to be stimulated and to think in different ways from your work.

One of them is when we look at, for example, the notion of males' desire, and we have in the news recently how the King of Thailand, for example, has stripped his consort of her official titles, and looking at the ways in which men's desire and intimacy is almost elevated to this royal status, I'm curious since you discuss the original word for love, cinta, where and how can we understand men's idea of romance, desire, intimacy within the Malay cultural domain?


Including things like consorts. Where do they find this intimacy and romance?

So I think it would be quite a sort of syncretic idea of what love is. It's influenced by perhaps this ideal of male sexual entitlement. They have-- they are entitled to multiple women at once. A sense of dominance that women can't-- men can't be denied their sexual desire. And at the same time, there are also sort of Malay cultural influences that come from the past, but perhaps disappearing, which is the idea of complementarity between women and men.

There are cultures within Malay society that are matrilineal traditionally, in which no inheritance is passed on to the women, and men move in with women-- women's homes. But this is fast disappearing, it doesn't really exist anymore. So it's a combination of a number of things, but the word cinta is not really sort of thought about in the original Sanskrit idea anymore, which is thought and care.

But I would like to say, though, that the concept of love-- because I do talk about this with the people who I interview and in focus group discussions and ask them-- and they're women, I don't interview men, but I only sort of get a glimpse of what they think men think. And they're very different things, but they are very open to an expanded definition of what love should be.

So they talk about like-- it's not necessarily between men and women, it's not necessarily an erotic love. It could be love between friends, a love that you have with your family. But usually that's coming from younger people who probably are inexperienced with the reality of romantic love. So I would say for men, maybe it's a sense of entitlement, and this implicit dominance is acceptable. They have the right to demand affection-- sexual attention from women, and that's where I sort of try to create this concept of emotional asymmetry. That's how I would answer that.

So I think--

I'm just going to-- I'm going to--


--finish one circle and then we'll start another circle also.

Great. Thank you so much. Oh, thank you so much for your talk. I think you make a really compelling argument about the emotional work that the Malay romance industry is doing, and I want to ask you about the practice of reading, and what is the role of that in all of this? What is it about reading-- especially because you're an expert in different forms of media, particularly cinema studies. So what is it about the practice of reading that makes it a particularly effective mode of doing this kind of emotional work?

Mm-hmm. That's a really great question. I think in classical media studies, people talk about reading as like hot media, because it requires so much of attention. Unlike if you're listening to the radio and you're watching a film, you could do it in a very passive way. So reading entails this sort of active engagement, and it's a lot of time invested. And these women are very willing to invest a lot of it to the detriment to-- a lot of other things that are happening in their lives, and they're very happy to reread these giant books, too, and they read it very fast.

And I have been asked this question before, like what actually happens during the moment of reading? I mean, I'm not going to do like some kind of experimental-- sort of psychological experiment where I put like these wires on their heads to sort of measure levels of like hormonal activity to figure out, but I think it's that-- it's that alone time that women have, it's kind of this bubble that they create for themselves. It's hermetically sealed from their life struggles and distress, that that's the kind of work that romantic fiction is doing.

And it's really fascinating, I find, because it seems to push out all the other aspects to what it means to be a woman that's supposed to be very important, like being a mother and looking after your kids, doing domestic responsibility-- all of that is pushed aside so that these women could do the work of reading.

Thanks very much. So you've presented this phenomenon of romance culture as so unique to a particular ethnicity in Malaysia, but Malaysia is a multiethnic society. And I wonder, is there romance reading culture in Cantonese, in English? Are books translated from one language to another, or one ethnic group to another? And is there traction or is there appeal in these other groups in the society for this type of literature?

Mmm. I can't sort of adequately answer that question because I haven't actually paid enough attention to other languages, but I could say that-- I think because even though Malaysia is a multicultural society, Malay people have this kind of cultural dominance that's disproportionate in the public sphere. So that means that when you go to the bookshops, for instance, you don't really see a lot of other languages. You see a lot of English language books for sure, and they're not typically translated into other languages because there is an assumption that a lot of people will be educated and understand English.

But the other big language is the Malay language. Sort of Mandarin, Chinese languages would be considered a minority language. I wouldn't be surprised at all that there would be romantic fiction in other languages, whether it's Tamil language or Chinese language, it's just that I haven't paid attention to them, I'm afraid.

Thank you so much, professor. My name is Amira. I'm a student here at HDS. I'm Indonesian, so I find this presentation very, very interesting. I actually remember as a teenager when Ayat-Ayat Cinta came out. Just to contextualize this novel, it literally translates as Love Verses with an Islamic connotation, and it's a very romantic novel about polygamy and the beauty of polygamy. And the characters are like young people.

And that was sort of the first time that there was a paradigm shift I feel like in my community that polygamy and this type of Islamized romance became so appealing in the society. So my question is, what do you think are the cultural implications that this type of Islamized romance play in the lives of Muslim youth especially today in Malaysia?

Just to quickly talk about the Indonesian context, love and romance in Indonesia amongst youth at the moment, it's very sort of interesting phenomenon happening in Indonesia right now. There are multiple youth movements on the one hand pushing for sort of this mutual respect between couples, but also there is this rising sort of conservative youth movements that are sort of about not knowing who you're marrying, you just marry, then you find out about where your partner is, and that's kind of like a pro-youth marriage-- like young marriage movement.

And Ayat-Ayat Cinta or Verses of Love has a sort of huge ripple effect in the region, because it's a very unusual book and it became adapted to a very successful film. And the reason why it's caught this sort of huge attention was because here is polygamy being romanticized, and it was sort of targeted to young readers-- it was written by a man who was part of this literary group. And the interesting thing is that it ends this monogamy. It doesn't end with polygamy.

So it's about a man who has competing female attentions who are vying for his love. He's like-- he's an Indonesian man who is in Egypt. He's studying in Al-Azhar University. And while he's there, all these women-- and he's an ordinary-looking guy, he's nothing spectacular to look at. But-- so there's an Egyptian woman, there are Indonesian female students who are also studying there with him, and they're all throwing themselves at him.

And so he is in this moral dilemma and how does he choose? And then he realizes, ah, in Islam I can have multiple women. But how it ends is interesting, because somehow this idea of monogamy eventually prevails. But there was a moment of like polygamists-- a polygamous situation where he marries a Christian Copt woman-- Coptic woman from Egypt, and it was her dying wish to marry him. And he married her on her deathbed. And they were very briefly polygamous.

So that is kind of romantic ideal in this story, but it ends with-- it does end with monogamy. And he marries a lady who is behind a niqab. So that was also quite a major sort of paradigm shift in Indonesian cinema where this is the first time you see somebody in a veil. For a long time there was no-- even though Indonesia's got the biggest Muslim population I think maybe after India or second to India.

Alicia, thank you so much. So the what I find so interesting and compelling in your work is that you are beginning-- taking us from this emphasis on love to care, right? And so that's a really interesting arc, and lots of things sort of get opened up as a result of it. And when I-- sort of two questions come to my mind.

And one is where in a sense, you're doing this careful reading of the concept of love and where it comes from and sort of it's multiple genealogies. And in fact, would it make sense to refocus that around care, right? So what care looks like and in terms of the question about meal desires or other ways of sort of thinking about it. To what degree-- or even the fact the guidelines, the premarital guidelines, to what degree they may not mention love, but how do they actually talk about care, right?


So sort of-- I wonder to what degree it may be interesting to sort of see care as the--


--the overarching strand. And that also then raises the second question for me which has to do with the homoerotic. And again, I understand that the guidelines don't-- writerly guidelines don't permit it, but I wonder if you could say sort of where in this whole-- in these relationships of caring that are built, where we might be able to read homoeroticism, right? And the caring, it seems, to me goes from the self-care when you're reading the novel, right? And you shut off everything, to the kind of communities that you are giving us glimpses into, to the characters of these novels-- so it's right through to what degree can we read forms of homoeroticism that are central to how care is imagined?

Yeah, and those are really great questions, Joti, I love them. So I'm trying to look at care rather than love mainly because love is just one of those overdetermined things also that we think we know what it is, but in different cultures, it probably means something else. But care, I think, opens up, as you say, to a lot more things. And this is where it fits in really well with what I'm looking at in which it's a lot of-- there's a lot of emphasis on relationships. Relationships that are formed between women that are not acknowledged enough, that are not seen as important enough.

Because we make an assumption that when we talk about romance, it's like the couple is the focus of this relationship, but actually, there are relationships outside the couple that seem to be very important, and they are doing a kind of emotional care work for each other. And the second question, which would be-- I'm sorry, I'm kind of like-- homoeroticism, I haven't actually thought too much about that, but I do realize that the relationship that women sort of have with each other, there is a lot of sort of intimacy in these spaces-- and I really love the picture that is gone now, in the sort of the infrastructure of emotional counterpublic at the book fair-- so a sea of women.

It's just a homosocial space where women are enjoying the pleasure of reading romance with each other, finding out new things with each other. And then there are two men there, and then they kind of stick out and they look lost, and they don't look like they belong. [LAUGHS] And the rest of the women in that space, they look really purposeful. They're kind of like, we are here for something, and the men are like, hmm, you know?

And I kind of like that. They're there with a purpose, but there is a potential to look at love between women in this kind of expanded definition of love that I'm trying to find out also, and that goes into sort of the original, the etymological origins of the word love in Sanskrit that not very many people know, but it's fascinating because it means to think about something, to care about something also, so there is that overlap. Not adequately answering your question, but it's something that I really like to pursue further. Mm-hmm

Kecia Ali, Boston University. So this is so fascinating, and I have about 12 questions, but to be continued. Yes, I'm not going to ask the all, but I hope we'll get a chance to talk more about them. The one thing that I'm wondering if you can say something about or if you've thought about is whether in addition to thinking about bureaucratic Islam on the one hand, and then the romance writing, reading, publishing, counterpublic on the other, maybe there's a sort of third mediating category which would be Muslim popular guidance literature, right?

So thinking about the kind of pamphlets and booklets, self-help, the religious literature targeting the same Malay Muslim public perhaps available in some of the same kinds of venues that also bridge the kind of formal bureaucratized state structures on the one hand and the kind of everyday life, making sense of your circumstances, giving you strength on the other.

Yes. There is a market, like a literary market for that third sort of group of books. And there is an Islamic self-help sort of subgenre. And it's a very unusual kind of subgenre in a sense that it appeals to equally men and women, and there is-- I just want also mention that the only thing that comes up to me is like how to be a millionaire kind of self-help books, and it's about this kind of thing. These are self-help books for success in life, and it ties in very closely with this kind of prosperity gospel idea that if you are very successful in life financially, you are very blessed as a person, and hopefully you will take that wealth to the afterlife through charity work and things.

So that-- there exists this particular kind of subgenre definitely. And I didn't mention that at these book fairs, there are a lot of similar kinds of self-help books. And they typically come out of personal experience of people who have gone through something, whether it's some kind of major life event, it's traveling, or a rags to riches story, and then they write a book about this. And they turn it in some ways as a sort of a genre of self-help. It does exist, and they do sort of overlap somehow. Yeah.

So I promised to go this way, but-- and while I'm walking, I'm going to take the chair's prerogative. We have about five more minutes, so I'm going-- let's take a few questions--

Sure, and I'll try to before--

--respond. And I'm just going to throw in one that the first book cover you showed us had the high-rises in the background, and then under then kind of beneath in the undercurrents was like a natural environment which I presume was the fantasies were occurring in this realm of nature as opposed to the modernized--

I don't remember this image?

Oh. Well, does anybody-- did I make this-- OK. Well, we might have to talk about it another time, but I just wondered how modernity factors into the whole dynamic that you're talking about. So-- and let's get a couple more questions quickly on the table--

Yeah, I'm--

--before we wrap up.

I'm Annette Lienau, I'm in the Department of Comparative Literature here at Harvard. I also have a number of different questions, but we'll try to limit to the extent possible. I would love to hear you or invite you to speak a little bit more about how you historicize in periodize the palliative texts that many of these contemporary women are looking to. Does it start with Waves of Longing in 2002? Or are some of the earlier romantic fictions from the 1920s and '30s actually within this longer tradition of romantic fiction, do they resurface also?

And in that regard, I'm wondering also about extensions of your work to Indonesia and how that might modify some of your conclusions on Malay fiction in this vein. In particular, historically I'm thinking about the ways in which some of the early fiction of the '30s in Indonesia were-- romance fiction in particular-- retain a kind of perennial interest in Indonesian reading communities, including like [SPEAKING MALAY], for example, which recently became a film, and was written by an author in the '30s who is very-- ardently anti-polygamist.

So I'm wondering how the perennial interest of fiction writers who present also historic challenges to maybe what might be seen as a more recent-- more recent texts that advance or open or present a more tolerant view of polygamy more recently, how that-- how that might modify your conclusions.

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Also interested in how this relates to sastrawangian--

Mm-hmm, no.

Not at all? OK. Or how you would contextualize them in tandem.

I think we'd better give Alicia our last two minutes to respond to any of these questions.

Those are big questions that I probably don't have enough time. All I could say is that earlier works of literary fiction don't prefigure in contemporary works, because as I was saying, there is a decline in literary Malay works, and then they kind of disappear, but they only reappear in some of more edifying spaces.

But popular fiction seem to come not so much out of an ether, like a vacuum, but it's sort of-- they do come-- they're written by middle-aged women. They do they read-- so canonical works by women from the 1970s, '80s who are female writers, but they don't come back-- I mean, the only book would be Finding Aziza, which was published in the 1990s, and that seems to be like the thing that women hold on to for many, many years to come.

But women writers, literary writers, they're still like literary. They don't-- they're not a big figure in Malay literature. So Indonesia, these books don't travel very well to Indonesia. Perhaps Ways of Longing does. And I think to talk about polygamy and how that would change my conclusions, I haven't actually thought about that very much. I'm running out of time and I'm kind of like, clock is ticking.

I did share the beginning of my lecture that a majority of women do accept it, that it's permissible in Islam, however they wouldn't be able to accept it in their own lives. And how that changes in the fiction is there are different ways to revision that, I suppose. Yeah. I don't really know how to answer that question for now.

And yeah. There are no canonical works like the level of Hamka coming back. Even the first Malay novel, which was published in 1925, that has become sort of like this forget-- it's more or less forgotten now. It's really hard to get this book in a bookshop, unlike in Indonesia when you go to Jakarta, Gremedia, you could buy books by Hamka, but you can't buy a book by Shaykh al-Hadi. That's the reality of the literary market. It's sort of like old stuff, they just disappear. It's mostly new things that seem to come out of a literary vacuum. Sorry, that's kind of--

Well, I think--

--talk about this more.

Yes. I can see that there are a lot of people who want to talk more with you, and we'll give them a chance to do so after we give you a warm thank you for a wonderful presentation.

Thank you so much for staying! [LAUGHS]